Monday 9 July 2012

The Cultural Olympiad: Is there really any connection between sport and culture – and music in particular?

We all know the somewhat spurious link between Pavarotti, Puccini and football but does that mean that there is any serious link between culture, and I am thinking of classical music in particular, and sport?

The games in ancient Greece attracted large crowds of spectators and were, therefore, an ideal occasion for musicians, writers and other artists to present their talents to the world. Apparently there were often contests in music and similar arts formed a separate part of the program. These were called 'musical contests' after the muses, goddesses of arts such as music, literature and drama.

We also know that athletes in ancient Greece wanted their prowess recorded in art and music, so there is certainly an ancient precedent for such a link.

The only mention that I could find in the Singapore presentation made as part of the UK’s Olympic bid in 2005 was the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, mentioning that London ‘…is a city rich in culture…’

So, given this, I had a quick browse of the Cultural Olympiad Festival brochure  to see what events the Olympics had generated.

There are events across a broad range including dance, fashion, art, street art, comedy, theatre, carnival music and film but it is difficult to see precisely what events are the direct result of the Olympics.

Of the classical events there are some bizarre examples that I can only believe Olympic enthusiasm has inspired such as the Kronos Quartet with rubab (this is not a misspelling of rhubarb but a Persian, lute-like, musical instrument) and zither players in Battersea Park, ‘bite sized operas’ at The Mac, Belfast, Britten’s Noye’s Fludde at Belfast Zoo, not to mention Stockhausen’s  Mittwoch aus Litch in Birmingham ‘an epic opera involving four helicopters and 600 performers’.

For the most part the brochure publicises the normal scheduled events at venues such as the Barbican Centre, Southbank Centre, the Royal Opera House Liverpool Philharmonic Hall and Symphony Hall Birmingham and festivals such as the Brighton Festival, City of London Festival that one assumes would have happened anyway.

There is a World Youth Orchestra with Mark Elder conducting Britten, Stravinsky and Mahler at the Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra with Britten’s War Requiem at Coventry Cathedral celebrating the Golden Jubilee of the Cathedral rather than the Olympics.

A large part of the brochure is taken up with a complete programme for the Proms.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for publicising our great classical music events to visitors to this country who may be, in the first instance, coming for the Olympics but I am not totally convinced that much of the billed classical music events are the result of the Cultural Olympics.

London 2012 Festival Director, Ruth Mackenzie, says ‘…people will remember 2012, not just for amazing sport, but for the unforgettable art as well.’ A laudable ambition but I can’t help thinking that the Festival brochure tends to highlight what we already have more than what the Olympics is providing, certainly so far as classical music is concerned.

The Olympics is the world’s largest sporting event and perhaps we should just remember it for that.

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